Virtual Reality for Pain Relief: Science Fiction to Medical Therapy

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From its first appearances in books like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and on television in the series Star Trek, virtual reality has captured the human imagination.
From its first appearances in books like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and on television in the series Star Trek, virtual reality has captured the human imagination.

From its first appearances in books like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and on television in the series Star Trek, virtual reality has captured the human imagination. 

Now the concept has progressed past the realm of the science fiction genre into medical reality and is currently under investigation as potential therapy for a wide range of conditions from addiction to autism to posttraumatic stress disorder and now pain management. 

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"One of the best ways to alleviate pain is to introduce a distraction," said Theresa Mallick-Searle, MS, ANP-BC, of the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford Health Care. "Because virtual reality immerses users in a 3-dimensional computer-generated world, it is uniquely situated to distract patients from their pain."

A small but growing body of evidence suggests that virtual reality distraction is effective for reducing pain, according to Ms. Mallick-Searle. In several studies, burn patients undergoing wound care reported a significant decrease in pain when they engaged in a virtual reality program called SnowWorld.1,2

Developed by researchers at the University of Washington's Harborview Burn Center in Seattle, SnowWorld is an immersive virtual reality experience in which patients interact with the virtual world by throwing snowballs at a cast of characters including snowmen, robots, and penguins that respond with 3-dimensional visual and sound effects when hit.

The concept is to use the experience generated by the fiberoptic virtual-reality helmet to direct patients' conscious attention away from the common occurrence of reliving the original burn experience during wound care. 

Initial findings are encouraging and suggest that the technology goes beyond simply changing the way patients interpret incoming pain signals to directly effect neuromodulation.

In a 2011 study by Maani et al published in the Journal of Trauma, 12 US soldiers who sustained burns during combat attacks involving explosive devices in Iraq or Afghanistan received half of their severe burn wound cleaning procedure (approximately 6 minutes) with standard-of-care pharmacologic therapies and half while in the SnowWorld virtual reality experience (treatment order randomized). 

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